The es­sen­tial guide to FES­TI­VAL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Strut­ting singers, pound­ing axe-men and danc­ing rev­ellers all present an al­lur­ing spec­ta­cle for the as­pir­ing mu­sic pho­tog­ra­pher, but how do you ap­proach your first live mu­sic event? James Pater­son is your gig guide...

NPhoto - - Nikon Skills - Thanks to Fred Nandi for the tick­ets and back stage passes for Bath­fest

Mu­sic pho­tog­ra­phy is a bit of a para­dox. For the per­former, it’s all about giv­ing the gift of mu­sic to the crowd. But for the pho­tog­ra­pher, the mu­sic is sec­ondary. We’re in­ter­ested in the vis­ual spec­ta­cle, not the au­ral one. For us it’s about cap­tur­ing the per­son­al­ity of the per­form­ers, the in­ter­ac­tion with the crowd, and the at­mos­phere of the set­ting. As such, it helps if the act puts on a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

Shoot­ing a gig, fes­ti­val or any kind of mu­sic per­for­mance for the first time can be a lit­tle in­tim­i­dat­ing, and not just be­cause of the pres­sure to get good shots. There may be sea­soned pros there sport­ing all kinds of fancy kit, so an en­trylevel D-SLR and a se­lec­tion of bud­get lenses can leave the fledg­ling mu­sic pho­tog­ra­pher feel­ing a lit­tle in­ad­e­quate. But there’s no need to get kit envy; great shots don’t nec­es­sar­ily rely on the best gear. You can achieve pro­fes­sional re­sults with the min­i­mum of kit, as long as you know what to look for and make good de­ci­sions on things like ex­po­sure, ISO and an­gle of view.

Doc­u­ment­ing a gig or fes­ti­val is a chal­lenge for your gear, your stamina and your cre­ativ­ity. With dif­fi­cult light­ing con­di­tions and fast-paced acts the per­fect shot doesn’t hap­pen by ac­ci­dent. Whether you’re shoot­ing a large fes­ti­val or an in­ti­mate gig in a bar, the fun­da­men­tal cam­era skills are the same. Fast shut­ter speeds, pre­cise aut­o­fo­cus and a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of ex­po­sure all play a part.

Get back­stage

You may be able to get a press pass that gives you ac­cess to ar­eas des­ig­nated for pho­tog­ra­phers – con­tact the or­gan­is­ers be­fore­hand to ask for one. It’ll help if you have a web­site with ex­am­ples of your pho­tog­ra­phy, or if you’re there on be­half of a print or dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tion. At smaller events or­gan­is­ers will of­ten be will­ing to give you a pass in ex­change for a few photos for their pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial (tip: look online for or­gan­ised events with very bad or am­a­teur photos, as they’ll def­i­nitely be in need of bet­ter shots!).

At larger events there will of­ten be an area be­tween the stage and the crowd for se­cu­rity, and with the right pass pho­tog­ra­phers can get in too (although some­times it’s just for the first three songs). It’s of­ten the best place to be, as you’re close enough to the acts to get in­ti­mate shots and try out dif­fer­ent an­gles, but you can just as easily turn your lens on the crowd. At larger gigs the stage will be raised, so it might be worth bring­ing along a small steplad­der – or you can im­pro­vise and find some­thing to stand on so that the acts don’t have the dis­torted look you get when shoot­ing peo­ple from a low an­gle.

You might be lucky enough to gain ac­cess to the side of the stage, which

brings you up to eye level with the acts. This can help you to cap­ture the event from their per­spec­tive, and al­lows for shots of the band and crowd to­gether in the frame. On some stages you might even be able to get right be­hind the acts, so that you can com­pose a shot of the singer with the crowd be­hind, con­vey­ing a sense of what it’s like to be up there in front of so many peo­ple. How­ever, it’s not all about ex­clu­sive ac­cess. It’s worth get­ting stuck in with the crowd too, as there will be lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties to cap­ture their re­ac­tion and the at­mos­phere of the event – and here, rather than off-stage, is where per­form­ers will be di­rect­ing their at­ten­tion.

The lead singer

Like all sub-gen­res of por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy, the suc­cess of a mu­sic por­trait lies in large part with the pose, ex­pres­sion and char­ac­ter of the sub­ject. A strut­ting front­man or woman should give you a great se­lec­tion of poses. When the magic hap­pens, be ready for it and shoot in Con­tin­u­ous High drive mode to en­sure you have your pick of shots. Be­ware the mi­cro­phone and its stand, though. Mics, and the shad­ows they cast, present one of the big­gest chal­lenges for the gig pho­tog­ra­pher. Try to cap­ture a singer as they pull away from the mic, or in in­stru­men­tal breaks; this can lead to bet­ter ex­pres­sions too, as faces can look a lit­tle strained mid-scream.

A sense of move ment

From the en­er­getic singer to the pound­ing drum­mer to the buzzing crowd, there’s so much move­ment go­ing on at a gig. This presents a co­nun­drum, as we ideally want to con­vey that sense of move­ment in the im­ages, but also to freeze the ac­tion to keep the sub­ject sharp. So keep an eye out for things that will sug­gest move­ment, such as long hair frozen mid-head­bang, ath­letic dance moves, or gui­tarists strum­ming or leap­ing. If you’re al­lowed to use flash at the gig (check be­fore­hand) then you could also try us­ing a lit­tle slow sync flash. The burst of the flash will freeze the ac­tion, while a slow shut­ter speed of around 1/10 sec will blur move­ment for an evoca­tive mix of sharp and soft ac­tion.

Shoot the DJ

DJs are very good at get­ting the crowd go­ing, but a sub­ject hunched over a lap­top or decks doesn’t of­fer many op­por­tu­ni­ties for great poses. In­stead,

look for the mo­ments when they ad­dress the crowd, punch the air or pull a pose.

To com­pen­sate for the lack of vis­ual fire­works in the act, DJs are of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by amaz­ing light dis­plays, lasers and smoke ma­chines, so you could fo­cus your at­ten­tion on the pat­terns and colours of the lights. Pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to your ex­po­sure when shoot­ing light dis­plays. Your me­ter­ing will of­ten be way off as there will be large ar­eas of dark­ness in the frame, and the me­ter may try to av­er­age those ar­eas out as grey. The good thing about ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing is that it’s usu­ally con­sis­tent, so the best ap­proach is of­ten to go com­pletely man­ual, take a few test shots to work out a good ex­po­sure for the lights, then shoot away, safe in the knowl­edge that the light lev­els will be un­likely to change.


You’ll of­ten be shoot­ing at the lim­its of your cam­era and lens’s low-light ca­pa­bil­ity. Shut­ter speed is al­ways go­ing to be the lim­it­ing fac­tor in the ex­po­sure when you’re pho­tograph­ing mu­si­cians, un­less they’re pos­ing for you, and on top of this you’ll usu­ally be hand-hold­ing, as tripods are gen­er­ally a no-no. When hand­hold­ing, your shut­ter speed should ideally be at least equal to the fo­cal length of the lens (so for a 100mm lens you’d need 1/100 sec). But if a sub­ject is danc­ing or mov­ing fast, you’ll need to push the shut­ter speed up to 1/200 sec or faster. To al­low for such fast shut­ter speeds you’ll have to in­crease the ISO. The good news is that mod­ern D-SLR sen­sors are get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter at high ISOs. Gone are the days when ISO1600 meant a noisy mess – we can usu­ally push the ISO up to 6400 or be­yond and still cap­ture high-qual­ity, de­tail-rich shots.

Wide aper­tures

When slower shut­ter speeds are out of the ques­tion, lenses with a wide and con­stant max­i­mum aper­ture re­ally show their worth. A high-per­for­mance zoom lens, like the Nikon 24-70mm with its con­stant max­i­mum aper­ture of f/2.8, is ideal. The wide aper­ture will make it eas­ier to shoot in dim in­te­ri­ors, and a stan­dard zoom range will en­able you to quickly zoom in to the ac­tion, or out to cap­ture a broader view. How­ever, fast zooms can be ex­pen­sive, so if you’re on a bud­get it might be worth con­sid­er­ing a prime lens like a 50mm f/1.8 in­stead. Although lim­ited to that fo­cal length, a 50mm is a su­perb low-light per­former. The dif­fer­ence in max­i­mum aper­ture be­tween a typ­i­cal stan­dard zoom kit lens which opens up to f/5.6 (at, say, 55mm) and a 50mm prime lens with a max­i­mum aper­ture of f/1.8 may not seem that much when you look at the num­bers, but it’s three-and-a-third stops faster. In terms of shut­ter speed, it means that if the kit lens can only achieve a cor­rect ex­po­sure with a shut­ter speed of 1/15 sec, the f/1.8 will give you a much more us­able 1/160 sec – that’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a sharp sub­ject and a blurry mess.

when slowe r shut­ter spee ds are out of the ques­tion, lenses that have a wide and con­stant max­i­mum aper­ture re­ally show their worth

FAST Aut­o­fo­cus

Shoot­ing wide open will leave you with a very lim­ited depth of field. This, cou­pled with the fact that the acts will be mov­ing around in low light, presents a chal­lenge for your aut­o­fo­cus. Of the two fo­cus­ing modes, Con­tin­u­ous AF is usu­ally the bet­ter choice, as it means the aut­o­fo­cus will track the sub­ject move­ment as long as you keep it en­gaged (as op­posed to Sin­gle AF, which will lock on once, then stop). It’s also worth think­ing about the method for trig­ger­ing the aut­o­fo­cus. Many band pho­tog­ra­phers choose to use their back AF but­ton for fo­cus­ing rather than the shut­ter but­ton (you can set this up in your D-SLR’s cus­tom menu). This en­ables you to keep fo­cus­ing sep­a­rate from the act of tak­ing the photo, so your thumb trig­gers the fo­cus and your fore­fin­ger takes the shot. Used in con­junc­tion with Con­tin­u­ous AF mode, it means you can hold the back but­ton with your thumb to con­tin­u­ally track the mo­tion of the sub­ject, then press the shut­ter but­ton when some­thing spec­tac­u­lar hap­pens. The same method works well for all kinds of por­traits.

You also have two choices when it comes to your point of fo­cus. The first op­tion is to man­u­ally move your fo­cus point around the grid in your viewfinder so it sits over the part of the frame oc­cu­pied by the sub­ject. But while this is the most pre­cise method, it’s of­ten not the fastest. Many pho­tog­ra­phers favour the ‘fo­cus and re­com­pose method’, where you use the cen­tral fo­cus point. The idea is that you use this point to aut­o­fo­cus on your sub­ject, then once they’re in fo­cus you re­com­pose the shot in what­ever way you choose. Again, when used in com­bi­na­tion with back but­ton fo­cus­ing, this means you can re­act quickly and lock the fo­cus be­fore shoot­ing. Be aware that the act of re­com­pos­ing the shot af­ter fo­cus­ing can some­times throw the fo­cus plane off slightly – although at the kind of dis­tances you’ll usu­ally be shoot­ing for mu­sic per­for­mances the dis­crep­ancy is neg­li­gi­ble, so there’s lit­tle dan­ger of end­ing up with a soft sub­ject.

RA W safe ty net

Shoot­ing RAW will give you a safety net for things like ex­po­sure and white bal­ance. In the mid­dle of the ac­tion with chal­leng­ing light­ing con­di­tions, pre­cise ex­po­sure me­ter­ing can be tricky. RAW files boast a greater dy­namic range than JPEGs, so if some­thing is un­der- or over­ex­posed it’s eas­ier to re­cover lost de­tail at the ex­tremes of the tonal range. With ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing of all colours to con­tend with, a cor­rect white bal­ance can also be hard to set on the spot, but shoot­ing RAW gives you the op­tion to change the white bal­ance post-shoot, some­thing you can’t do with JPEGs.

Gain­ing ac­cess to the pho­tog­ra­phy pit will en­able

you to get those al­limpor­tant close-up shots

A zoom lens with a wide and con­stant max­i­mum aper­ture will en­able fast enough shut­ter

speeds to freeze the ac­tion

Shoot­ing RAW will en­able you to cor­rect colours cap­tured un­der tricky light­ing

Turn for­get to turn around now and again to get some au­di­ence re­ac­tion shots

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